Turkmenistan Weekly Roundup

The Turkmen Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) published an editorial on the government website outlining its vision for a "European vector" or the inclusion of the European Union in the diversification of energy sales among various customers. The MFA hinted that there were "complex geopolitical processes under way," an indirect reference to its diminished relationship with Russia and new friendship with China. While once Russia purchased 50 billion cubic meters of gas from Turkmenistan, with the global recession and downturn in demand, Gazprom began reducing the gas pumped from Turkmenistan and then had a dispute with Ashgabat over a pipeline explosion in 2009 that is still unresolved. Ultimately, after not coming to an agreement on prices, Russia reduced its delivery to 10 bcm, and China moved into the gap, providing nearly $10 billion in soft loans to construct a pipeline to China slated eventually to deliver at least 30 bcm. Iran also stepped up its purchases, and other countries long involved in Turkmenistan from Malaysia and South Korea also came forward to spent more than $9 billion developing the gas extraction infrastructure.

This month, Turkmenistan featured the announcement of the British firm Gaffney, Cline & Associates that its reserves could total as much as 26.2 trillion cubic meters -- enough for all potential customers. The MFA said Ashgabat based its plans for energy development on these reserves, including also the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, which is agreed upon in principle but still faces issues over pricing and security. Last on the list but not least are plans for Europe which are moving forward, but still remain shy of a firm commitment. In the editorial, the MFA basically says it has agreed to talk about the modalities of the pipeline and form a working group but falls short of a firm commitment -- the word "Nabucco" is not mentioned. Even so, as it did in articles in the state media last week, the Turkmen government refuted claims made by Russia that it doesn't have enough gas, or that it will be too difficult and expensive to reach Turkmen gas miles beneath the ground, and mixed as it is with sulfur.

The MFA also took head on the obstacles to starting the Trans Caspian Pipeline while disputes with Azerbaijan still remain over demarcation of the Caspian Sea bed. But the MFA aptly pointed out that fishing, shipping and even mineral extraction went on despite the unresolved border and insisted that the two neighbors could reach an agreement bilaterally. That flies in the face of Russia's notion, which mandates a multilateral approach with all the littoral states, where Russia could presumably predominate. Azerbaijan has just discovered a gas deposit itself with an estimated 350 bcm and may take a renewed look at finalizing the Trans Caspian although it continues to deal with Russia and Turkey, EurasiaNet reports, and has been also discussing shorter European pipelines. Baku’s final agreement with Ankara about transit costs for delivery to Europe remain elusive as well, despite pledges of resolving the issue.

Turkmenistan has just unveiled a 211-meter television tower atop the Kopetdag mountain range in time for the 20th anniversary of its independence. While far from the tallest such structure in the world -- it's a third of the size of the Tokyo's tower which is the highest in the world and less than Russia's Ostankino -- it could probably win prizes for its ostentatious awfulness. The sixteen-sided Turkmen state symbol bulges from the base, which sits on a green and white pyramid-like structure. The state media hasn't given the price tag -- bakutoday.net put it at about $191 million, and a US firm involved in the project said the technology cost was $200 million, and the whole project $415 million.

The Turkish firm Polimeks, which has always been close to the Turkmen leadership, built the tower, and Harris Broad Communications, a firm based in Florida, supplied the modern technology -- a new multi-facility broadcast center and three mobile broadcast vehicles. “This is one of the largest broadcast projects that has been awarded anywhere in the world in recent years," universalnewswires.com reported.

There's no question that Berdymukhamedov wants to harness the power of new broadcast technology to streamline his dictatorship -- but he's been constantly frustrated with his own TV executives whom he hires and fires with distressing rapidity. At a recent government meeting, he told the latest figure in charge of TV and radio that had better produce "high quality, informative programs which must be distinguished by a high level of artistry, richness of content, thematic diversity and modern audio and video design." What he means is that he wants TV to propagandize "the era of new revival" and all his construction projects and ostensible reforms.

Something is always imperfect, however; according to chrono-tm.org, the Turkmen leader was displeased that the uniform sateen fabric was too pale in color in the national dresses of the girls dancing at the opening ceremony. Rumor has it that the merchant who supplied the fabric from the United Arab Emirates was summoned for interrogation, and even arrested. In any event, his warehouses have been locked and sealed.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has called on neighboring Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to join a new regional economic body linking Turkic-speaking countries, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reports. Yet while Turkmenistan was once enthusiastic about joining the regional Turkic community, Ashgabat didn't send any representatives to this meeting, at which a Business Council of Turkic Speaking States was established by Kazakhstan, Kyrgzystan, Azerbaijan and Turkey. In fact, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pulled out on October 19 after violence at home and is now preoccupied with a devastating earthquake.

Why doesn't Turkmenistan participate? (Uzbekistan didn't come, either). For one, the entire Turkmen leadership is consumed with preparing for the 20th anniversary of independence. But perhaps more to the point, Ashgabat doesn't especially need any Turkic body dominated by larger powers in the region to enjoy a robust trading relationship with Turkey -- it does that all on its own. Turkmenistan may not want to be overshadowed by Uzbekistan, about which it has always been historically wary – that is, if Tashkent were to join. Ashgabat has never pronounced its reasons for avoiding the Turkic community concept but it probably just doesn't find it meets its interests.

Turkmenistan has apparently been very nervous about the spread of either color revolutions or Islamic fundamentalism from its neighbors, and after an initial loosening of restrictions on students studying abroad, pulled in abruptly, halting the travel of thousands of students in 2009 headed for largely American-sponsored programs in Kyrgyzstan, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan and Russia. Finally, last year, the Turkmen government relented and allowed some of the students to proceed. Then this summer, Turkmenistan reacted suddenly again just when thousands of Turkmen students were headed to Tajikistan, stopping them at the Farap border crossing, preventing youths from returning to their studies in Dushanbe. Finally, word came down from the Ministry of Education that the travel ban was lifted, but when a group of students tried to cross the border again, only university seniors were allowed to proceed. It seems that Turkmenistan remains unwilling to yield to either religious or cultural influence from its neighbors that would threaten the dictatorship’s power.

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Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Turkmenistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Sifting the Karakum blog. To subscribe to the weekly email with a digest of international and regional press, write turkmenistan@sorosny.org

Turkmenistan Weekly Roundup

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